Smith (The Quest, 2007, etc.) delivers plenty of the usual high-pitched adventure and old-fashioned prose in his latest addition to the interminable Courtney family saga.
The regressive hero carrying the day this go-round is Leon Courtney, a neophyte hunter in British East Africa grappling with politics, intrigue and the local fauna. Court-martialed in 1906 over a botched assault on a tribal war party, the 19-year-old second lieutenant resigns his commission to throw in with veteran elephant hunter Percy Phillips. Simultaneously, Courtney’s uncle, Penrod Ballantyne, who commands local British forces, surreptitiously assigns his nephew to keep an eye on German settlers to the south. Much of the book’s first half is occupied by yet another epic safari. This time, Courtney accompanies popular U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt and his discouraged son Kermit; Smith does his best work in describing the party’s encounters with rampaging elephants and great-maned lions. Things slow down considerably in the second half, which finds Leon assigned to spy on Count Otto Von Meerbach, a German industrialist embroiled in a scheme to smuggle war funds via the titular airship. The action sequences are straightforward enough, but the hoary tales of the Courtneys are about as contemporary as an H. Rider Haggard novel, and it’s hard to get past those pitfalls. The book’s racist caricatures (“Some like chocolate—but I prefer vanilla,” Von Meerbach sneers) and Courtney’s stereotypically immodest conquests, among them an Irish widow, a murderous German princess and Von Meerbach’s mistress, make James Bond look like a model of political correctness by comparison.
Lions, hunters, dirigibles and wanton women don’t necessarily mean something for everyone.